LIPIEN: VOA harms Putin opposition in Russia

Faked interviews, lax Web security are signs a shakeup is needed

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The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of critical U.S. information programs to countries such as Iran, China and Russia, can only be described as a failed enterprise in need of emergency surgery.

Just as the new Voice of America (VOA) director, David Ensor, was praising the VOA Russian Service as a model of innovation during a speech to mark the broadcast’s 70th anniversary, the Russian Service was posting an apology to Alexei Navalny, a famous Russian anti-corruption lawyer, opposition leader and blogger, for publishing an online interview with him, which he described as “100 percent fake.” Mr. Navalny said he never granted this interview (he hasn’t been giving any interviews recently), accused Voice of America of “going nuts,” and suggested that all VOA Russian staff should be let go. The alleged interview, apparently obtained through an exchange of emails, included uncharacteristic attacks on other Russian opposition leaders who are Mr. Navalny’s allies against the Kremlin. No one bothered to confirm whether the answers received by email came from Mr. Navalny. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) also had a similar incident in which someone impersonated another opposition figure in Russia.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which funds and controls the Voice of America and RFE/RL, did not find out about the VOA interview incident until days later and has its own serious management and communication problems. For one thing, it failed to observe VOA’s 70th anniversary Feb. 1. There was nothing on its website to mark this historic day. The BBG didn’t even bother to report that its chairman, Walter Isaacson, had resigned a few days earlier. Some BBG members learned about the alleged interview with a major Russian opposition figure not from their top managers but from reading the independent BBG Watch website run by anonymous employees and other volunteers. Meanwhile, the VOA English news website completely ignored the “fake” interview story.

But what we have here is much more than just a failure to communicate. It’s about an agency rated in official surveys by its own workforce - perhaps more knowledgeable about international broadcasting than anybody else - as having a management team with the worst leadership and knowledge record in the entire federal government.

These managers will soon present to Congress a restructuring plan, which they hope will allow them to create a corporate structure, giving them greater control. In the meantime, the BBG assigned the job of running the agency to Richard Lobo, who was appointed to his position by President Obama. Mr. Lobo’s wife raises money for the Obama re-election campaign. Mr. Lobo kept the old management team and rewarded its top executives with outstanding performance bonuses of up to $10,000 on top of their $150,000 to $170,000 government salaries.

These managers convinced BBG members that the agency can use a major overhaul to turn it into something resembling National Public Radio for both international and domestic audiences. They presented the Russian Service as a model of how to deliver news and engage with the audience at less cost through new media.

What most BBG members did not know and were not told is how the model news service envisioned in the restructuring plan really works. A few months earlier, the BBG hired a highly respected independent journalist in Russia to review the VOA Russian news. He warned that the website had a pro-Putin bias and downplayed reporting on human rights issues. BBG executives did nothing to correct it and failed to show the study to BBG members. Instead, VOA hired another Russian journalist who used to work for the pro-Putin media while seasoned editors with experience in American journalism were leaving, disgusted with the VOA management. According to BBG Watch, some of those responsible for the “fake” interview are now spreading rumors that Mr. Navalny is a liar. It all came out as the interview story unfolded.

The interview was reportedly conducted through an exchange of emails by a contractor from Russia who recently arrived in the United States. In 2008, the BBG ended VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia and retired experienced Russian-American journalists, most of whom were U.S. citizens. They were replaced by poorly vetted, poorly trained and poorly paid contractors to develop news content for the Internet and social media. They were recent arrivals from Russia, as were their editors and managers. They recruited their friends in Russia as freelance Web reporters. Some of these Russian citizens spoke little English and knew very little about America. Their program adviser does not speak Russian. Their websites have been compromised a number of times by unknown hackers.

A senior Republican BBG member, Victor Ashe, a former mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and former U.S. ambassador to Poland, had a hint that there was something wrong with the rosy picture painted by the management team. He started to ask questions on how information programs critical for U.S. national security can be left in the hands of contractors, some very capable Americans and foreign citizens, and many others without sufficient journalistic training and security clearances, all of whom are shamelessly exploited and denied customary employment benefits - even flu shots. Despite resistance from BBG managers, Mr. Ashe was able to get them immunized against flu so they would not infect the entire workforce.

What Mr. Ashe also found was that the management team failed to explain to BBG members that their plan of eliminating radio and TV broadcasts, relying only on the Internet and hiring ever more contractors, presents a serious national security risk. VOA websites have been hacked again and again. Editorial controls are weak and contractors are left unsupervised. This gives foreign security services plenty of room to wreak havoc with U.S. international information and public diplomacy programs. Russian opposition leaders have their hands full resisting attacks and provocations from the Kremlin and its security services - they don’t need U.S. taxpayer-funded stations to add to their problems.

BBG Watch reported that in his reform efforts., Mr. Ashe is facing resistance from some of the other members of the bipartisan board. At least two other Republican members are still supporting the failed management team. Earlier this year, that team had convinced the entire board to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China and to rely on the Internet, which is blocked, censored and hacked by the Chinese regime and its agents. Republicans and Democrats in Congress killed this plan. It became a wake-up call for Mr. Ashe and some of the other BBG members. Most are serving on expired terms, but the White House and congressional Republican leaders are not rushing to replace them.

Victor Ashe now wants to make sure that the BBG management team does not succeed in getting Congress to approve some of the restructuring plan elements that would limit even further transparency and accountability. Frankly, none of this plan makes much sense. The BBG should be abolished, U.S. international broadcasting placed under new management, perhaps as part of another larger government agency, and it should have a strong advisory and supervisory board that would allow for greater public scrutiny. An independent investigation should be launched to determine how the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty became victims of an apparent disinformation campaign and to make sure it does not happen again. Otherwise, there will be more “fake” interviews, more hacked websites, more pro-Putin bias, more harm to the democratic opposition in Russia and China, and much greater risk to U.S. national security.

Ted Lipien is co-founder and director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB.org). He was acting associate director of the Voice of America.

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